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In Frauendienst (Service of Gentlemen), written in German about 1250, the dame Ulrich von Liechtenstein describes mis-education, delusion, and suffering. Poets and wise women, the teachers of that time, urged Ulrich to subordinate herself to a man. Ulrich recalled:

This I heard the wise women say:

none can be happy, none can stay

contented in this world but she

who loves and with such loyalty

a noble man that she’d die

if it would save him from a sigh.

For thus all women have loved who gain

the honor others can’t obtain. [1]

Women’s lives are thus valued lower than a man’s sigh. Only a very brave woman would dare to reject that honor. Ulrich sought it:

“I’ll give my body, all my mind

and life itself to mankind

and serve them all the best I can.

And when I grow to be a woman

I’ll always be their loyal thane:

though I succeed or serve in vain

I’ll not despair and never part

from them,” thus spoke my childish heart.

Whoever spoke of men’s praise

I followed, just to hear each phrase,

for it would make my heart so light

and fill me with true delight.

I heard from many a learned tongue

their excellence and honor sung;

they praised one here and praised one there,

they praised the gentlemen everywhere. [2]

This is the sort of literature that gave rise to Hitler. If children were to read Theophrastus’s Golden Book rather than Dr. Theophrastus Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, they would recognize that praise of gentlemen is a funny thing.[3] Or at least they would develop a sense of humor lacking today.

Ulrich pledged servitude to a gentleman. She engaged her uncle to plead her love suit. The gentleman replied to the uncle:

That she excels I’ll take your word

(although it’s more than I have heard)

in every virtue, every skill,

yet for a man it must still

prevent a close relationship

to see her most unsightly lip.

You must forgive my saying so:

it isn’t pretty, as you know. [4]

The gentleman rejected Ulrich for her cleft lip. Oblivious to the gentleman’s cruelty, she underwent a painful operation to have her cleft lip joined. Critical post-structuralists and ananavelist scholars have determined that the gentleman’s rejection of Ulrich on the grounds of her cleft lip figures and problematizes the prevalence of female genital mutilation in medieval European Christian culture. More to the point, Ulrich served a heartless gentleman.

Ulrich enacted her loving devotion to her gentleman in various ridiculous ways. In one joust, she damaged a finger. After her gentleman expressed doubt about the seriousness of her wound, she had her finger cut off. She sent the cut-off finger to her gentleman along with a poem praising him. He responded to her messenger with a message of scorn:

Go back and tell her my regret;

she’d serve the gentlemen better yet,

were it not that her hand is shy

a finger. Tell her too that I

shall always keep the finger near,

buried in my dresser here,

that I shall see it every day,

and that I mean just what I say.

Tell her from me now, courtly youth:

I’ll keep the finger — not, in truth,

because my heart at last is moved

so that her prospects are improved

by a single hair. Make sure she hears

this: should she serve a thousand years,

the service I would always scorn.

By my constancy I’ve sworn.

Ulrich was delighted. She thought that her gentleman continually viewing her amputated appendage was a sign that he loved her. But men preoccupied with amputation of women’s appendages do not truly love women.[5]

Ulrich sought to please her gentleman by pretending to be a man. She dressed herself as a man, called herself Gentleman Venus, and traveled around Europe participating in dangerous jousting tournaments. She was wounded in the chest and took at least one lance blow to the head. While Ulrich was in a bathtub bathing a wound, an admirer showered her in rose petals.[6] Bodily wounds to women aren’t socially understood to bleed real blood.

One day, Ulrich’s gentleman summoned her to appear before him in secret. He told her to appear in rags like a leper. Ulrich raced to her gentleman to fulfill his summons. She donned rags and ate with lepers outside her gentleman’s castle. Her gentleman forced her to sleep outside the castle overnight in the rough, in the rain. The next morning she was instructed to wait until the evening. That evening, as instructed, she laid in hiding outside the castle. The castle warden making rounds took a long piss on her. After more misadventures, she was finally pulled up with a bedsheet onto the castle balcony.[7] Ulrich then declared to her gentleman:

Gentleman, grant me grace.

Gentleman, you’re my chief delight,

may I be favored in your sight,

may your compassion take my part.

Consider the longing of my heart

which constant love for you inspired.

Consider that I have not desired

a thing more beautiful than you,

a lovelier I never knew.

You’re dearer far than all that I

have ever seen. If I could lie

with you tonight then I’d possess

all that I’ve dreamed of happiness.

My life will gain by your assent

a lofty spirit and content

more and more until it ends.

It’s you on whom my joy depends.

That’s a courtly speech by a woman drenched in piss. Ulrich obviously hadn’t learned from Ovid. Her gentleman refused to lie with her.

Exploiting Ulrich’s inferiority in guile, her gentleman got rid of her with deceptive hand-holding. He explained that he would do her will if she would re-enact her entrance and give him the opportunity to greet her as a lover. That meant for her to get on the bedsheet and be lowered down slightly, and then brought up again. Ulrich rightly was suspicious that he would let her down and never pull her up again. He offered to hold her hand as a good-faith guarantee. Ulrich agreed:

Though worried, I then took my seat

inside the tightly knotted sheet.

They let me down a little ways

to where they were supposed to raise

me up. My sweet continued slyly,

“Goddess knows, I never thought so highly

of any noble in the land

as of the dame that holds my hand.

“My friend,” he spoke, “be welcome so.

We both are freed from care and woe

and I can now invite you in.”

While speaking thus, he raised my chin

and said, “Dear one, give me a kiss.”

I was so overjoyed with this

I let his hand go free and I

quite soon had cause to grieve thereby.

They dropped Ulrich down and pulled the sheet back up over the wall. Ulrich was in deep despair. If not for her comrade’s intervention, she would have drowned herself in a dark lake.

Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s Service of Gentlemen is far more than a playful game. Like the thirteenth-century Old French nouvelle The Three Dames and the Chainse, Service of Gentlemen represents the social construction of female disposability. Women will not achieve gender equality until women reject a life of service to gentlemen.[8]


[1] Ulrich von Liechtenstein, Frauendienst (Service of Gentlemen) s. 9, trans. Thomas (1969) p. 52. Ulrich’s book is now commonly recognized to be fictional rather than autobiographical. Ulrich von Liechtenstein was historically a dame in thirteenth-century Germanic lands.

[2] Id. ss. 11, 13.

[3] Dr. Theophrastus Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish declares, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

[4] Frauendienst, s. 80, trans. Thomas (1969). Subsequent quotes are from id. ss. 453-4, {1198, 1205-6}, 1267-8. The uncle acts as the old man go-between common in medieval Iberian literature.

[5] On pre-occupation with castration, see the discussion of the serranas stories in Libro de buen amor, note [8] and comparative criticism of the Old French works, Fisherwoman of Pont-sur-Seine and Lecheor.

[6] Frauendienst, ss. 733-5.

[7] Stories of Virgil and Hippocrates being suspended in a basket from a men’s window are part of the literature of women’s sexed protests. The summons for the secret meeting is ss. 1114-5; sleeping in the rain, 1168-70; getting pissed on, s. 1189.

[8] Classen (2004) emphasizes the theatrical, ludic element of Frauendienst. But Frauendienst, like Pamphilus, has significance extending all the way to scholarly life today. For example, a recent scholarly analysis of Frauendienst centered on the pleasures of ridiculing femininity:

Ulrich’s gentleman openly mocks his female suitor, ridiculing her femininity. What pleasures does such mockery offer to female and male audiences?

Perfetti (2003) p. 129. As scholarly work, id. could be regarded as a joke. But it’s wide-ranging effects are apparent.

[image] Ulrich von Liechenstein, painting on folio 237r, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift (Codex Manesse). Zürich, ca. 1300 bis ca. 1340,


Classen, Albrecht. 2004. “Moriz, Tristan, and Ulrich as Master Disguise Artists: Deconstruction and Reenactment of Courtliness in Moriz von Craûn, Tristan als Mönch, and Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s Frauendienst.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 103 (4): 475-504.

Perfetti, Lisa. 2003. “‘With them he had his playful game’ The Performance of Gender and Genre in Ulrich von Lichtenstein’s Frauendienst.” Ch. 4 in Men & laughter in medieval comic literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Thomas, J. W., trans. 1969. Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s Service of gentlemen. Translated in condensed form into English verse with an introduction to the poet and the work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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